Rich, unpredictable, xenophobic ‘joker’ with bad hair playing a populist — that is how most of the world saw Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. But between Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson’s politics underwent an incredible makeover. As he completes a year as Britain’s Prime Minister, it is increasingly clear that the similarities between him and US President Trump end at the awful hairstyles.
Both Johnson and Trump come across as buffoons, and that erratic style is a part of their ‘charm’. The key difference, however, is that unlike Trump, Johnson is a buffoon by choice. This difference was always there, but it has become all too prominent during the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic started a race to the bottom among the world’s populist leaders. A little over six months into that race, the partial results are out. And Britain’s Johnson has fared better than most of his fellow populists. After initial blunders, Johnson got his act together, and unlike Trump in the US, he has actually managed to bring the pandemic under control in the UK.
But Johnson’s political makeover isn’t just limited to controlling the Covid-19 spread. Over the past few months, his government has spent billions to revive the country’s economy — a substantial departure from the usual policies of the Conservative Party. Similarly, moving away from the Tory consensus, Johnson has decided to increase spending on health and education. And the man who is often considered the architect of the deeply xenophobic and anti-immigrant Brexit campaign, has shed that image and made way for residents from Hong Kong to get British citizenship.
As Donald Trump tries to respond to the pandemic with one immigration ban after the other, Boris Johnson is quietly rewriting the rules on how to run centre-Right parties in 2020.
A new Boris
Until last fall, Boris Johnson, just like Trump, was also accused of helping destroy his country’s position and status in the world. He was chided for prioritising his narrow political ambition over sacred national interest and the welfare of his constituents.
But the first signs of change came with his speech following the landslide win at the December 2019 general election.
Johnson had a message for the voters, “especially for those who voted for us Conservatives for the first time”: You may not think of yourself as a natural Tory. Your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper before you put your cross in the Conservative box, and you may intend to return to Labour next time round.
“If that is the case, I am humbled that you have put your trust in me and you have put your trust in us. I, and we, will never take your support for granted,” declared Johnson, marking a stark departure from his previous image of a divisive and an opportunist leader.
Covid shows how Boris is different
Throughout the pandemic, it has become apparent that unlike US President Trump, Johnson actually knows a thing or two about governance. It was most visible when he himself was rushed to a hospital after testing positive for Covid-19. But the most important lesson Johnson seems to have learnt is that he can tell when he is wrong, and then change his policy and put a break to the losses.
This was evident after Johnson bought into his key advisor Dominic Cummings’ maniacal idea of not enforcing any social restrictions in the earlier phase of the pandemic, and allowing the Brits to develop herd immunity instead. This policy was so disastrous that the pandemic spread through the UK like wildfire, and Johnson got infected. But he learnt his lesson and soon changed tack.
Now, the pandemic is relatively under control in the UK, where the number of daily new cases has been brought down to double digits.
Trump, on the other hand, instead of listening to his scientific advisors, decided to launch an all-out public attack on Dr Anthony Fauci, the US’ top infectious diseases official and the man heading the government’s response to the pandemic.
Today, the Covid-19 crisis continues to grow in the US, and is hurting Trump’s prospects of being re-elected with each passing day.
Quintessential insider becomes populist
It is intriguing how Boris Johnson can make decisions unlike other populist leaders.
There is something common among most populists — their need to look like an outsider challenging the establishment. “Trump sees himself, and is seen by his voters, as an outsider, locked out of the circles he wants to be in, the heir to a real-estate fortune with no political experience and a crude sense of humor, bristling with resentment, and with a background in reality television,” writes Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic.
In that sense, Boris Johnson is in stark contrast with all other populists, including Trump. Throughout his career, Johnson has made one public gaffe after another. He has been referred to as the “lovable buffoon” by journalists and people in the Westminster and Whitehall circles.
But behind this image of a buffoon lies not only Johnson’s rather shrewd political acumen, but also his somewhat best-guarded open secret. Johnson hails from the very British establishment whose foundations he now seems to have shaken. Unlike Trump, Johnson is the quintessential insider.
Johnson went to Eton private school (much like 20 other British PMs before him), then to Oxford University (like 27 British PMs), and then became a journalist and eventually the editor of Conservative-leaning The Spectator — a job often considered a prerequisite for high-British politics. From there, he went on to be the twice elected mayor of London, UK’s foreign minister, and eventually the prime minister.
In a way, Boris Johnson never became a complete populist. He is someone who could crack a joke on himself.
“He has been serious all along, using his humor and ridiculousness to camouflage political instincts that have, in fact, been sharper than his peers,” writes Sullivan.
“He sensed the shifting populist tides of the 2010s before most other leading politicians did and grasped the Brexit issue as a path to power. But he also understood how important it was not to be fully captured by that raw xenophobic energy.”
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